Big box trial wraps up, decision expected by summer

  • Lawyers Michael Aleo and Tom Lesser listen as Lawyer Marshall Senterfitt makes a point during the big box trial in Franklin County Superior Court on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 3/28/2019 11:35:32 PM

GREENFIELD — Sitting in a doctor’s office in Maine, Fred Bucklin was reading Yankee Magazine. Flipping through the pages he came across a story about reasons to visit Greenfield.

The article reads: “Why is this Main Street intact, when so many others have been dismantled? Most probably because Walmart’s #1 enemy lives in Greenfield.”

Testifying Thursday in Franklin County Superior Court, Bucklin remembered he couldn’t believe it. He knew the issue over a potential 135,000-square-foot retail store had been a hot-issue in the press, but all these years later it was still hanging around. In 2018, the longtime appraiser, who has worked for the federal government and large commercial developments, completed his second evaluation of the homes along the French King Highway corridor on behalf of the developer.

“I was curious,” Bucklin said on the final day of the big box trial, “because I wanted to see if there was an impact on the value of the property because of the project.”

Bucklin said he found through his analysis that property values of Wunsch Road residences had not decreased because of the proposed “prototype Walmart” that’s been stuck in court since 2011 when neighbors appealed a decision the Greenfield Planning Board made to grant a special permit.

While Bucklin testified he found the values had not depreciated over the years, the appraiser for the neighbors found the property values had in fact dropped.

The difference in opinion over process, accuracy and the validity of one side’s expert to the other’s was in keeping with the theme of the week, which focused on detail.

“Appraising is not accurate,” Bucklin offered when being questioned by the attorneys who had hired him, alluding to the subjectivity of the profession. “It really is not.”

Judge Richard Carey will now await post-trial documents to be submitted by the end of April, and then he can deliver his decision on the big box trial.

It will now be up to the judge to figure out whether the Planning Board did its due diligence in granting a special permit to Greenfield Investors Property LLC, of Ceruzzi Properties, formerly of Mackin Construction, to build a big box.

Thursday’s trial centered around the two appraisers, Bucklin and James Curley Jr., whose uncle and business partner conducted the original appraisal for the neighbors. Most of the conversation revolved around statistical methods in calculating home costs and whether they were implemented properly.

“You like to compare apples to apples?” Tom Lesser, attorney for the neighbors, asked Bucklin.

“I like to compare houses to houses,” Bucklin said.

Both sides asked several questions to the opposing side’s appraiser, searching for specific answers to qualify specific arguments. While the lawyers sought yes-or-no answers, the appraisers attempted to elaborate.

Several times objections to questions halted the process.

Considerations for traffic were also a centerpiece of the fourth and final day of the trial.

Curley said his uncle’s analysis showed increases in potential traffic caused by the proposed project had already decreased values in the homes on Wunsch Road.

Marshall Senterfitt, attorney for the developer, asked Curley if he was a traffic expert. He said no, but he had driven on Wunsch Road and saw that it is a natural cut through that could create traffic issues.

“You’ve done it yourself, but you haven’t done a study yourself,” Senterfitt said.

“That would be a good study to do,” Curley said.

Bucklin was criticized by Lesser who mounted an argument about his methods.

Bucklin concluded in his study that the homeowners’ property values will not decrease on Wunsch Road. He based his analysis on the fact that certain homes near the Walmart in Westfield, Walmart in Chicopee and Big Y in East Longmeadow did not significantly depreciate values.

Lesser pointed out that the homes in those areas, two counties south of Greenfield, were next to parks or an airport, creating other outside factors that were not considered by Bucklin.

Curley’s study compared homes on Wunsch Road to one on East Cleveland Street and one on High Street, both in Greenfield, for a statistical study that led to his uncle’s conclusions, as well as his own, saying property values would go down. This methodology was also picked apart by the opposing side.

Senterfitt, who is based in Boston, talked about the proximity of the High Street home to Baystate Franklin Medical Center and how it must be noisy to live there, and how the East Cleveland Street home is near the busy state highway of Route 5, also known as Federal Street, and that it provides the amenity of being centrally located to the downtown shopping area.

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